In a dramatic turn of events, the graduate students who spent the last two years campaigning for a union, have withdrawn their petition to represent Penn's graduate and professional students who serve as teaching and research assistants.
"We made this decision in a Special General Body Members’ Meeting on Thursday, February 15, and our petition to withdraw was submitted to the NLRB today and we are waiting for an official acceptance notice," Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania, GET-UP, said in a statement posted on Facebook at 7:40 p.m.
Just a month ago, GET-UP celebrated a victory in its campaign to unionize: After 203 days, Philadelphia's National Labor Relations Board announced that the group would be allowed to hold an election on whether to unionize.
“When we finally got the answer on Dec. 19, it was a such a relief to know," member of GET-UP Olivia Harding said at the time. "Penn is both an educator and an employer of us, so [this decision] justified everything we had been working for.”
Now, GET-UP's decision to rescind its petition means that graduate students will not be able to expect a union in the coming months.
“This action means that there will no longer be an election later this semester to determine whether eligible graduate and professional students will choose to be represented by GET-UP,” wrote Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett in an email to all graduate students at 5:40 p.m. on Feb. 16.
Student leaders say that GET-UP's decision is a strategic move to help graduate students across the country retain the right to unionize in the long-term.
Following in the footsteps of other pro-unionization groups at the University of Chicago and Yale University, GET-UP wants to delay its vote because of worries that the GOP-dominated NLRB might use the vote as a chance to overturn the 2016 landmark decision that formally categorized graduate students at Columbia University as "employees."
This ruling, known as the "Columbia decision," came after students at the university appealed to the NLRB in hopes of unionizing. It set a precedent for graduate student workers at various other institutions to begin their own campaigns toward forming a union.
GET-UP is worried that if its vote passes through, Penn will file an appeal to the NLRB and that the NLRB will make a decision that overturns the precedent set in 2016. Right now, the NLRB consists of two Republicans and two Democrats, but President Donald Trump has already appointed a third Republican nominee who, if approved, will tilt the board towards the GOP.
"In response to these challenges, GET-UP took an important and powerful step to withdraw our election petition in order to ensure that Penn and the NLRB cannot use our campaign to set back grad workers at private universities around the country," the group wrote in a statement.
Other student leaders explained that GET-UP's decision is part of a wider trend.
"GET-UP's withdrawal fits a pattern that has been happening across the country," said Ian Heinrich, a pharmacology Ph.D. student, who is a member of No Penn Union, a group that opposes GET-UP becoming a centralized union.
"Essentially, GET-UP is sacrificing their petition in order to preserve the right for graduate students to unionize," Graduate and Professional Student Assembly President and third-year School of Design and School of Arts and Sciences professional master's student Miles Owen said. "If there is no vote, then there is no appeal and no potential to reverse the Columbia decision. It's a strategic move on their part."
While GET-UP will be temporarily giving up its central mission in pushing for a union, it said that it still plans on continuing to advocate for graduate student workers.
"Withdrawing our petition helps protect grad workers’ rights across the country and our ability to organize for an election in the future. To that end, GET-UP, in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers, will continue to organize graduate students, to advocate for graduate worker rights at Penn, and to press for union recognition directly with our administration," the organization wrote.
Penn's administration has long-opposed GET-UP's campaign for a union, and had recently become more explicit in discouraging students to vote for it. Earlier this week, Penn deans and administrators, including Pritchett and Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein, wrote emails to students, urging them against voting for a union.
Moving forward, student leaders say they hope to see the University follow through on the commitments that Gutmann and Pritchett made in their announcement today.
“We are committed to redoubling our efforts to learn more about the evolving needs of our graduate and professional students and to develop new initiatives that shape the graduate education and student life of the future,” they wrote, adding that the Graduate Student Center plans to host a series of events to hear from graduate students on issues that matter to them, including "diversity, mentoring, and harassment."
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